It seems as if just yesterday, a little over a year ago in March 2020, our state shut down during the unprecedented coronavirus crisis that permeated the globe. As businesses, offices, schools and stores shut down, so did courts.
The WCAB asked attorneys, judges and staff to stay home while a plan to continue with the board’s calendar developed to ensure the health and safety of the community. Within days, the DWC and WCAB quickly announced a modified hearing calendar where court appearances were limited and eventually transferred to telephonic appearances, filing deadlines were extended, and by August 2020, the DWC implemented a virtual courtroom system for trials.
Outside of the board, attorneys, court reporters and interpreters quickly adapted to virtual depositions. Over the past year, remote work, telephonic and virtual interaction became the way of litigation for WCAB practitioners and staff as the community adjusted to the new procedures set in place during these unprecedented times.
While the pandemic certainly posed challenges in a world of litigation where in-person interaction was the way of doing things, the new procedures implemented to accommodate for the crisis provided an alternative way of remote litigation that revealed some clear advantages.
For instance, many judges’ “conference days” on the WCAB calendar moved much faster as telephonic hearings were disposed of more efficiently. This resulted from the fact that the inability to interact in-person on the day of hearings incentivized parties to meet and confer prior to hearings, making them better prepared for hearings and thereby contributing to quicker dispositions.
Meanwhile, witnesses and applicants who would have otherwise traveled a long distance for appearances were now able to appear telephonically or virtually, and didn’t have to spend half a day staring at their phones or laptops in a cafeteria. Attorneys and hearing representatives were able to avoid travel time and time spent at the board for appearances, which sometimes took an entire day – allowing them allocate such time to other matters. Many practitioners also enjoyed the rare and convenient ability to make appearances from the comfort of their home or office.
A year later, the WCAB’s coronavirus regulations remain in place, but as the state begins to slowly reopen, it begs the question: will the WCAB revert to its pre-March 2020 way of doing things when California fully reopens?
While it is indisputable that certain complex hearings and issues warrant an in-person return to the board, one cannot deny the benefits and time saved as a result of the remote hearing calendar over the past year.
Hence, in a post-coronavirus era, in the interests of promoting judicial economy, the DWC and WCAB might very well permanently implement the temporary pandemic regulations that proved to be far more efficient for ongoing litigation, while bringing back some of the pre-coronavirus litigation procedures that were found essential in their absence during the past year.
The WCAB may bring back in-person hearings limited to those complicated cases and trials with multiple parties, witnesses and exhibits, while simultaneously maintaining remote court calls for other more simpler and general hearings. The WCAB may permit certain severely-injured applicants or witnesses or parties from a distance to appear virtually or telephonically despite an in-person hearing. Some staff at the WCAB may return to in-person work, while others may alternate between working from home and court, while others may still continue working remotely.
COVID-19 definitely shook the world in 2020, but it also forced a temporary way of remote litigation in the judicial system that has proven to be so efficient and resourceful that it may just remain in the WCAB community beyond coronavirus days.
Eliana Ramirez is a partner at Bradford & Barthel’s San Diego office. If you have a question about a workers’ compensation defense issue, please feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (619) 641-7942
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